With holiday gift-giving approaching, I thought this might be a good time to revisit some children’s classics.
What does it take for a book to become a classic? First, it needs to stand the test of time: to be read and enjoyed decades or even centuries after it was written. To be a classic, a book also needs to be widely recognized as being well-written and/or important. I didn’t set an arbitrary cut-off date for the classics on this lists, but you’ll notice that most of them date to the first third of the 20th century or earlier. There are some wonderful books written later that may well be or become classics but didn’t quite fit my nebulous “test of time” criteria. (Check the Honorable Mentions for a few that just barely missed out, most of them because they were published after the 1930s.)
My Favorite Children’s Classics
- The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this. Something about the story of lonely, unhappy, unloved Mary Lennox and her invalid cousin Colin coming alive along with a walled and forgotten garden just connects to something deep inside me. I don’t know why; I was well loved as a child, and only sometimes lonely, though I probably experienced mild depression during part of my childhood. Regardless of why, The Secret Garden has been one of my favorite children’s books for at least 4 decades now. (And I especially love the Tasha Tudor illustrations.)
- Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (A. A. Milne). I have loved Pooh since before I can remember. My mother must have read all the stories to me at some point, and I still have an LP of Maurice Evans reading the opening chapter of Winnie the Pooh. (We taped it and then ripped it to CD for our daughter when she was little; she listened to it many a night as she fell asleep. She can still quote the first several pages verbatim.) Yes, I love the Disney films too, but my first love is classic Pooh. I’ve got my mother’s copies, but they’re too worn and precious to read now, so I bought a single-volume special edition with the color plates.
- Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery). Another enchanting story about an imaginative and lonely little girl finding family, friendship, and happiness, and also a book I’ve re-read frequently since my late elementary school years. (I didn’t see a recurrent theme at the time, but in retrospect…) (my review)
- Little Women (Louisa May Alcott). I loved this book and I love it still. And by Little Women I really mean both books that are usually now sold under that title. Little Women had everything – the siblings I lacked, the single mother and far-away father I had, adventure, comedy, drama, tragedy, pathos, courage. Jo’s independent streak, her unruly tongue, and her tomboyish ways endeared her to me. Amy’s pretentious airs annoyed me, but I secretly liked her too. I always thought that Meg got short shrift, especially after she married Mr. Brooke. And Beth I simply loved, because how could you not? Laurie was dashing and fun — and I still sort of ship him and Jo, although even as a child I could see that they are too alike and too volatile to have made a good marriage. Almost everything about the book appealed to me. I also liked the two sequels (Little Men and Jo’s Boys), although they are neither as real and compelling nor, perhaps, as well-written as Little Women.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis). Narnia is pure enchantment, pure delight, and another classic I still reread at least every few years. As a child, I secretly hoped to discover a wardrobe or some sort of gate to Narnia. In 9th grade, we read it for English class and explored the book’s Christian allegory in depth. (I went to a private school.) As a teacher and later as a mother, I read it to my students and my daughter. And I’ve enjoyed both the BBC television version and the recent movie despite each of their flaws. (This is the one book that breaks my arbitrary publication-date limit. I just couldn’t leave it off the list.)
- A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett) always appealed to my sense of justice, as Sara Crewe goes through years of humiliation, poverty, and servitude with dignity and quiet courage. I loved her ability to imagine, and always grieved for her when things got so hard that she just couldn’t anymore. (And yes, this is yet another story about a lonely, unloved, imaginative young girl. I told you there was a bit of theme here.) Again, I love the version with illustrations by Tasha Tudor.
- Beatrix Potter’s books. The only books on my list for younger children, but I can’t possibly leave them out. I only owned one as a child, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. But friends and cousins had some of the others, and I found many at the library. Wonderful little stories, charmingly told, and the stories and illustrations are still beloved around the world – I’ve collected a Spanish Peter Rabbit and a Welsh Tale of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle in my travels. My personal favorites are Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, The Tailor of Gloucester, and of course Peter Rabbit.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels (L. Frank Baum). I’ll be honest, my first introduction to The Wizard of Oz was through the movie and an LP of the sound track. I could sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before I could read – probably around age 3. So I was predisposed to like the books when I finally read them. But they are delightful stories, in which there’s plenty of danger but no one ever really gets hurt (except the evil people and creatures.) I have my mother’s copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with the original illustrations but with endpapers showing photos from the movie.
- Heidi (Johanna Spyri). Heidi has been really neglected in recent years. Whether you like the book seems to depend partly on the translation. There have been some really plodding translations that make it seem boring and dull. I guess I was lucky to find a good one as a child, with lively prose that kept my interest. I loved the people, the descriptions of the Alm-Uncle’s cottage and above all the Alps. (Between Heidi and The Sound of Music, it’s a miracle I haven’t visited Switzerland and Austria yet! It’s on the bucket list.) Heidi’s mishaps as she later attempts to adjust to life in the urban-dwelling Clara’s house are touching and funny, but I always rejoiced when she finally got to return to the mountain and her beloved grandfather.
- Peter Pan (James Barrie). I read the book after several years of watching (and loving) the stage musical on TV (with Mary Martin as Peter) and listening to my LP of the Broadway soundtrack as a child. The racism in it troubles me now (and I wasn’t oblivious to it even as a child) but the adventures were thrilling! I enjoyed it and read it several times.
- Mary Poppins (P. L. Travers) and its sequels. Another book I read because of a movie I saw yearly on TV and my soundtrack album, and then grew to love for itself. The books are very different from the Disney movie in some ways, yet many of the best scenes from the first book are in the movie, and the movie captures much of the flavor of the books. I loved them and re-read them almost a dozen times as a child.
- The Little House books (Laura Ingalls Wilder). I owe much of my sense of what pioneer life was like to these books. I don’t know how many times I read and re-read them, but it must be well over 20. Laura was a bit more trouble-prone than I was, but I identified with both her and the sweeter-natured Mary. And I fell in love with Garth Williams’ illustrations.
I enjoyed these books too, but either they weren’t quite as beloved to me in my childhood, or they were written after the cutoff date.
- The Light Princess (George MacDonald). A short story rather than a novel, The Light Princess is a traditional-style fairy tale about a princess with no gravity – in either sense of the word – the evil fairy who cursed her, and the prince who breaks the curse. It makes a great picture book; I love the illustrations by William Pene du Bois, although that edition is sadly out of print.
- Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (Arthur Ransome). My three favorites of the series about children, sailboats, and (often) England’s Lake District. It’s really only the publication dates that kept these off the main list. They’re great adventure stories for any child.
- The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie (George MacDonald) Fantasy stories with allegorical Christian elements; it’s not hard to see why C. S. Lewis named MacDonald as one of his greatest influences.
- Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan (E. B. White) I could never quite swallow the origins of Stuart Little (human beings don’t give birth to mice!) even though his adventures were delightful, but White’s other two books were childhood favorites. Again, only the date kept Charlotte’s Web off the main list.
- Pollyanna (Eleanor Porter). Poor Pollyanna is mocked by many people today – her very name has come to mean someone who is obnoxiously or naively goody-goody. But if you read the books, they’re not at all sappy. Pollyanna’s optimistic approach to life takes great effort — and her life has not been at all easy, which makes her determination to “play the Glad game” all the more admirable. She’s a very human little girl (and yes, another lonely, imaginative child. What can I say?)